7 Months Without a Budget, Illinois Governor Sticks to Pro-Business, Anti-Union Agenda

by | January 27, 2016

By Rick Pearson

Gov. Bruce Rauner used his second State of the State address Wednesday to urge lawmakers to cast aside months of political and ideological gridlock and use "mutual respect" to move Illinois forward.

But the Republican governor, confronting Democrats who control the legislature, did not back down on his pro-business, union-weakening "Turnaround Agenda" that is part of the impasse that has kept the state without a formal budget for seven months.

In a speech that lasted around a half hour, Rauner restated his call for changes in collective bargaining with public employee unions, requiring employees to bear greater proof that their injuries were job related and limitations on civil damage awards. He also urged passage of constitutional amendments to limit lawmakers' terms and take much of the politics out of the drawing of state legislative boundaries.

During the address, Rauner was more reserved in his rhetoric toward leading Democrats following a week in which when he sharply criticized House Speaker Michael Madigan and labeled Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel a "failure." He did not name either politician but twice noted his efforts to work with Democratic Senate President John Cullerton.

Still, as Rauner talked of modest economic growth in "white-collar communities" in the Chicago area -- and declines elsewhere in the state, he said that growth came despite having to "overcome the financial mismanagement that is now strangling Chicago and Cook County."

Noting the allegiance between organized labor, civil liability attorneys and Democrats, Rauner said: "I understand that union leaders and trial lawyers are putting pressure on you to keep the status quo -- but if we don't offer a competitive environment for businesses, pretty soon the unions won't have any more jobs to unionize and the trial lawyers won't have any more businesses to sue.

"All I'm asking for is a return to balance in this state -- 'cause right now, we don't have competitive balance and jobs are leaving," said Rauner, who frequently dropped the letter "g" from the ends of words.

And Rauner described the leaders of the state's largest public employees' union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, as "out-of-touch with reality" in stalled talks over a new contract with state workers.

Rauner aides acknowledged privately that Rauner's speech was an attempt to set a new political tone after months of stalemate and heated rhetoric -- an attempt to try to reset his dealings with Democrats who hold super majorities in the House and Senate and who have been distrustful of his actions in pushing his agenda and his vows to use his personal wealth to reward helpful Republicans.

"All of us in this chamber had a difficult year together in 2015, as we debated a budget with structural reform. But it is not too late for this General Assembly to make historic progress for the people of Illinois," Rauner said.

"If each of us commits to serious negotiation based on mutual respect for our co-equal branches of government, there's not a doubt in my mind we can come together to pass a balanced budget alongside reforms. If we work together, Illinois can be both compassionate and competitive," he said.

Rauner spoke of areas of compromise, including a prospective agreement with Cullerton, the Democratic Senate president, on a way to try to meet constitutional restrictions and change public employee pensions -- an effort that could save $1 billion a year in costs to the nation's most underfunded public retirement system.

The governor also noted broad areas of agreement in changes to the state's criminal justice system aimed at reducing prison populations and making criminal sentences more equitable, particularly involving non-violent offenses.

In addition, Rauner has labeled as an achievement the one portion of the state budget he didn't veto -- an elementary and secondary school budget that gives more money to education. The governor said he would work with Democrats on coming up with a more equitable distribution of general state aid dollars to schools in poorer districts.

But in setting goals for improving schools, Rauner also raised union-weakening language that has been labeled a poison-pill by Democrats on issues the Republican governor wants, such as a property-tax freeze.

Rauner said he wants to give school districts "more flexibility when it comes to bargaining, contracting, and bidding, to save taxpayers money, while enabling districts to pay higher teacher salaries."

In his first State of the State address a year ago, Rauner warned that it was "make or break time for the Land of Lincoln."

Twelve months later, Rauner said to achieve "grand compromise, we must cast partisanship and ideology aside."

"We must break from the politics of the past and do what is right for the long term future of the state. I'm ready -- and it's my genuine hope that you are too. Let's continue this journey together. Illinois can't wait any longer," he said.

Before the speech in the House chamber began, the Capitol rotunda was flooded with protesters calling for an end to the seven-month impasse.

Many of the organizations protesting were part of the Responsible Budget Coalition, which spoke at the Capitol about the effects the gridlock has had on social service providers facing staff and program cuts without payment from the state. Others came independently, wielding signs demanding funding for senior care, child care and mental health counseling.

(c)2016 the Chicago Tribune